A Buckhead graduate is responsible for professional football in the city of Atlanta.
In 1965 Mayor Ivan Allen was in the midst of delivering one of his main promises from the campaign trail for the city’s top job in 1961 — a sports stadium that would attract a professional baseball team to Atlanta.
In 1964, with a promise the Milwaukee Braves would move to Atlanta, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium broke ground. While the venue was built with the promise of baseball, it could also serve as the home of a professional football team and the upstart American Football League wanted to expand to Atlanta.
The franchise was offered to longtime Buckhead resident Rankin M. Smith Sr., a former president of his family’s insurance company, Life of Georgia. He attended Buckhead's now-defunct North Fulton High School but graduated from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla. According to a brief biography of Smith, he turned down the league when the more prestigious and established National Football League offered him an opportunity to own a football team.
In 1965, Smith paid a then-astronomical $8.5 million for an expansion NFL team in the city, the Atlanta Falcons. The AFL franchise Smith turned down was awarded to Miami, and thus the Dolphins were born. At the time of Smith’s passing in 1997, the Falcons had reached the playoffs just five times and had won a single division title, that one coming in 1980.
The year following his death, ironically, the 1998 Falcons reached the pinnacle of the sport, playing in Super Bowl XXXIII Jan. 31, 1999. We won’t discuss the outcome of that particular game, only that we got there.
The Smith family owned a majority of the team with Smith’s son, Taylor Smith, serving as president until they sold to another Northsider, Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, in 2002 for $545 million. A Forbes magazine September listing of the estimated values of NFL teams listed the team as worth $837 million.
Not a bad return on investment over a 47-year period. Today the Falcons are flying higher more consistently than ever before. I think back to my youth and how significant the University of Georgia Bulldogs were (with all due respect the Georgia Institute of Technology.) Those were the days of Herschel Walker, with just about everyone sporting a No. 34 Georgia jersey.
Two weeks ago, on the Friday before Atlanta played San Francisco, with the winner going to the Super Bowl, students at The Lovett School in Buckhead got a rare non-uniform day, instead donning their favorite Falcons gear. The sea of red and black, this time for the Falcons, trailing into the school was a site to behold.
That is to say the team has come a long way, but there wouldn’t be the Falcons without a certain North Fulton High grad and his family and their 37-year stewardship.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.